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‘Portlandia’ Season 4 Premiere: Mild Laughs But Ultimately Forgettable

Portlandia’s fourth season opened up to a weak start due to a series of creatively competent sketches that never really climaxed. There were no major indications that the show looks flat for the upcoming season because these sketches were moderately funny, but none stuck out in my mind as among the best.

Often the famous guest stars bring baggage from prior projects or are give a role that plays to their strengths that helps them garner extra laughs, but in this case I felt Kirsten Dunst was miscast in the show’s cold open. The sketch featured Dunst as a young woman house sitting for her aunt who ultimately dies after the house’s prior residents, played by Armisen and Fisher, haunt her with contradicting “facts” from various periodicals. In the tradition of the horror heroine, the part calls for someone – like Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween – who is naive that the audience can quickly identify with. Dunst has hit home roles of more detached and unlikable characters in recent films such as Melancholia and Bachelorette so quickly empathetic isn’t quite in her roadhouse. If that were the only problem then I think the sketch could’ve coasted by, but I also found it to be underwritten. The headline in the newspaper describing the couple’s death says they died of “confusion,” which was just short of an astute observation to be funny.

I found that dating fact-checking sketch the most consistently funny, maybe because I have much more experience with dating than joint checking accounts. This sketch was the only one that developed the jokes to completion, including references perfect for its demographic i.e. Juno, TV on the Radio, and Breaking Bad. The post-date interview between Armisen and Kumail Nanjiani, who if you recall is the same energy associate from the Blackout finale, played well off each other. Armisen plays inept everyman roles well while Nanjiani excels as playing the everyman’s rival, irritating customer service representatives.

The throughline sketch where Claire (Fisher) proposed joining bank accounts with her slacker boyfriend Doug (Armisen) had about one funny joke per segment, but I don’t believe it was one of the stronger narrative sketches. The middle segment where Doug and Claire inquire to the bank clerk works the best because the humor is visceral – the bank clerk has contempt for the couple, Claire has contempt for the intractable bank clerk and Doug is still trying to understand how bank accounts work. Claire tears down the bank clerk, played by Vanessa Bayer of SNL fame, for being single and not understanding the significance of joining bank accounts.

The other two segments would’ve worked better if Armisen and Fisher could’ve exploited some under-the-surface tension regarding the couple’s unequal contribution to their relationship that they’re trying to solve with joining bank accounts. Resentment works great in short sketches because jabs of anger can be thrown out, usually resulting in some great one-liners. The final segment of the joint accounts sketch where Doug bought a hot tub with Claire’s money seemed more like a How I Met Your Mother plotline than a well thought out Portlandia sketch, but I think they redeemed themselves with the biggest laugh of the episode where the maybe-insane, elderly hot tub salesman tells Claire that “recent studies have shown that ancient studies have been confirmed that hot tubs can significantly increase your income.”

The sketch about the difficulty of finding reasonably-priced downtown parking resulted in some mild laughs, because that’s a struggle everyone can relate to these days, but just like the computer-written, inspirational quotes sketch, I didn’t remember them until I sat down to write this review. Obviously since this show is written and acted by such talented people, the problem isn’t normally with the sketches being unfunny but rather them being ultimately forgettable.